Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies

Outbound on the T: Jewish Young Adults in Cambridge, Somerville, and Jamaica Plain

Boston Young Adults Study

Fern Chertok, Annette Koren, Rachel Bernstein, Tobin Belzer

September 2017

Boston is home to the largest concentration of 18 to 37-year-olds in the United States. The 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study found that young adults make up almost one-quarter of the local Jewish population, but also noted that the plurality are largely unaffiliated and are most likely to be engaged culturally, if at all. Employing two sources of information—a reanalysis of the Boston 2015 Jewish Community Study and new interviews with 50 young adults and key informants—the report creates a portrait of Jewish young adults living in Cambridge, Somerville and Jamaica Plain and, in particular, those who are marginally or not at all involved in Jewish life.

Read the report


The Lives of Young Adults

  • Busy Building Adult Lives. Young adults are busy with work, internships and graduate school. Most also make efforts to build a rich and meaningful adult life investing themselves in creative, recreational and volunteer activities. Young adults are willing to allocate time and resources to activities they deem personally important.

  • Friends are Community. Young adults find connection and belonging through their networks of friends rather than within the local neighborhood. They are proud of the friendship circles they have forged but are also keenly aware of the transient nature of these networks.

  • Choosing Where to Reside is about Pragmatics and Lifestyle. Interviewees choose their residential neighborhood based on cost and access to public transportation. They also seek areas with diverse options for recreation and nightlife. The availability of Jewish institutions play no role in their decisions about where to live.

Jewish Identity and Young Adulthood

  • Jewish Identity is not Central. Young adults are proud of their Jewish identity, but Jewish observance is not a priority. They point out that they are not religious. For these individuals, Judaism is about community, heritage, culture and values.

  • Jewish Social Networks are the Nexus of Jewish Experience. For many young adults, Jewish life is rooted in and bounded by a circle of friends. They typically express their Jewish identity through episodic Shabbat dinners or informal celebration of major Jewish holidays with their friends.

  • Dropping in on Jewish Life. Many young adults occasionally try out Jewish programs and groups but often decide not to return because the experience did not match their expectations or hopes. At least one-quarter have a desire to be involved in Jewish activities but feel that they do not know enough to fully participate.

  • Intermarriage and Interdating. Most currently coupled young adults have non-Jewish partners. Some report that their non-Jewish partner influenced them to focus on their Jewish heritage. Most feel that their non-Jewish partner has had positive experiences with the Jewish community. Most young adults who are not currently in a relationship would, ideally, like to find a Jewish partner.

The Expressed Needs of Jewish Young Adults

  • Looking for Jewish Friends and Community. Many young adults are interested in expanding their Jewish social connections. Their preference is for informal, small-scale or interest-focused options where they can get to know other young Jews in their neighborhood. They do not want events akin to “meat markets” or other awkward social gatherings.

  • Looking for Content/Education. Although the majority had formal Jewish education, many young adults feel they retain only a modest body of knowledge. As young adults, they want to re-enter the discussion of Jewish thought, heritage, and values.

  • Looking for Social Justice and Volunteer Opportunities. Many young adults see social justice as the point of intersection of their Jewish and secular identities. Their focus is often on universal issues of race, class, and privilege, but many are open to Jewish forums and avenues for volunteering and social action.

Dealbreakers in Attracting Young Adults

  • No One Wants to Go Alone. Young adults are reticent to go to an event when they do not have a friend to accompany them. They don’t want to feel like an outsider.

  • Location, Location, Location. Young adults are less likely to consider programs that are not easily accessible by public transportation. Specifically, young adults who live in Cambridge, Somerville or Jamaica Plain are unlikely to attend events in Brookline or anywhere else that requires them to change trains.

  • Not Focused on Religion. Many young adults do not want activities or settings organized around the religious aspects of Judaism. Even when events are related to Jewish holidays, they want the focus to be on community and not religion.

  • Not Too Formal, Not too Often. Young adults prefer opportunities where they can “drop-in” when they have the time but not feel that they are disappointing others when they cannot attend. They also prefer options that do not require a decision far in advance of the event.

  • You Need to Know to Go. Many young adults know little to nothing of the Jewish opportunities available to them. Their reliance on word-of-mouth and social media means that unless members of their friendship circle are plugged into this information, they are unlikely to ever hear about an activity.